It was 1960-something and I was attending the summer session at Hollywood High; a friend got me in to usher at the Huntington Hartford Theater (now the Fernando Lamas Theater) on Vine Street. One night some French guy was to sing. I had never heard of him, but there was an extra-special excitement in the air as Maurice Chevalier, Hedy Lamar, Steve Allen, Marlene Dietrich (on the arm of a young blond muscleman), Meredith Wilson (who wrote The Music Man) and other luminaries chatted in the lobby. The house lights dimmed and Maurice Chevalier with much glee introduced the singer. A thin man, in a suit that seemed to be much too tight, entered to thunderous applause and sang a song in French (a language I did not know). The audience went wild. He did not look glamorous; neither was he handsome like Robert Goulet. He sang two more songs and the volume of appreciation doubled. I could not tell what the big deal was, so I went home, puzzled. That was my introduction to Charles Aznavour.
Now, I am fully educated about what the big deal was. Today I know some French and am a big Aznavour fan, having studied the heritage of the French popular song and its practitioners. Thus, half a century later, I was in a better position to appreciate French Lessons en chanson. This engaging evening of French songs, and English songs with French themes, was performed by Jean Brassard and Steve Ross, with the latter on piano. The evening was skillfully presented with alternating English/French lyrics, and done in such a way that one did not have to understand a second language to enjoy the presentation. Introductions were provided prior to songs lacking English lyrics, and told the story of the song, so that all listeners would have a strong sense of the songs’ meanings.
For many years, Steve Ross has reigned as New York’s premier cabaret singer/pianist, performing locally and internationally. Jean Brassard has accrued numerous entertainment industry credits and awards, both in his native Quebec and as a New Yorker since 1982.
Jean and Steve opened with Aznavour’s dynamic "Le Temp/There is a Time," and then proceeded to move on to songs by (or associated with) Jacques Brel, Charles Trenet, Michel Legrand, Gilbert Bacaud, Yves Montand, Juliette Greco, Josephine Baker and others, some known outside of the French speaking world, others not. Charles Trenet wrote and performed hundreds of songs during his long and successful career and only two are known in English translation: "Beyond the Sea" and "I Wish You Love." Gilbert Bécaud also wrote scores of songs, but only one became an English standard -- and what a standard it is!: "Et Maintenant/What Now My Love" (which Jean and Steve duoed in the show) was recorded by almost every singer around in the '60s and beyond, including Robert Goulet, Connie Francis, Petula Clark, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sonny & Cher, Andy Williams, Dionne Warwick, Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Miss Piggy, Liberace, and Judy Garland. In a two-hour interview on WBAI in New York, Bécaud said that his favorite English version was Judy Garland’s performance at the London Palladium in 1964. (Find it, take a listen, and you’ll know why.)
Interspersed between the French language songs we heard "French Lesson" from the 1947 film version of Good News (written by Adolph Green, Betty Comden and Roger Edens), "April in Paris" by Vernon Duke, "An American in Paris" by Gershwin, and songs from Cole Porter’s 1953 musical Can Can. (No one sings the hilarious lyrics of the song "Can Can" like Steve Ross!) Included as well was Irving Berlin’s "Harlem on My Mind" from the 1933 Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer, which imagines expatriate singer Josephine Baker sitting in her Parisian redoubt and missing New York’s Harlem (a total fantasy by the way: she certainly was not missing Harlem while she enjoyed the kind of over-the-top stardom in France that was not available for a woman of color anywhere in the U.S.A. of that era).
The evening was altogether wonderful. I must particularly note Steve Ross’s rendition of Charles Trenet’s "La Mer/Beyond the Sea," and Jean Brassard’s singing of "Les Moulins de Mon Coeur/The Windmills of My Mind." "Beyond the Sea" was a big U.S. hit for Bobby Darin. Steve played and sang a gentler version, with dreamy chords over the waves of his voice.
Jean sang Eddy Marnay’s lyrics to "Les Moulins de Mon Coeur." Michel Legrand’s music served as the theme music for the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair. Most Americans of a certain age know the English version by Dusty Springfield, featured on her classic album Dusty in Memphis. Marnay’s French lyrics are real poetry. The English version by Alan and Marilyn Bergman replaces “coeur” (heart) in the French title with “mind” in the English title, thus winding up with an entirely different song. Jean Brassard delivered "Les Moulins de Mon Coeur" beautifully and hypnotically to Legrand’s undulating melody.
The world of the French popular song is mostly undiscovered in America. Brassard and Ross served up a hefty introduction to the genre to those who may have been in need of one, and a rich evening of outstanding entertainment for all. - Jay David Reisberg
French Lessons en chanson will be reprised in Manhattan on Tuesday, July 26, 7:00 PM at The Triad , 158 West 72nd Street.
The Hudson Opera House is a Multi-Arts Center in Hudson, NY, offering a year-round schedule of arts and cultural programming.
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, assistant to the founder of New York's Love Street Theatre, and bon vivant at large.